I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is about Joel Edgarton’s Gordo in The Gift that finds you with an eye constantly over your shoulder, but after Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom from last year’s Nightcrawler, this is the creepiest performance I’ve seen in a while. Perhaps it is the visual clarity that comes with one person donning the three caps of director, writer and actor and if it is, The Gift is testament to why ventures with a unified vision are far more effective than a collaborated effort. Edgerton’s debut presents itself in a neatly wrapped package – much like Gordo’s calling card in the film – and what one can find inside is a sense of desperation and anxiety that things could go horribly wrong any moment. This is one of those intimate thrillers that play most effective with real characters and the incredulous possibility of words once uttered coming back to haunt you.
Simon and Robin are husband and wife, and looking to move into a comfy new house, a la Simon’s swanky new corporate job. This is when they come across Gordo, an awkward and silent man who claims to have gone to high school with Simon and would like nothing more than to catch up. It all seems very ordinary at first, but strange presents start appearing at their doorstep and Gordo keeps finding himself around the couple’s premises, to the constant frustration of Simon. As the film progresses, Gordo becomes more and more intrusive and threatening, tearing apart the harmony of the family and causing even Robin to distrust her husband. Yes, The Gift frequently finds itself crawling under the viewer’s skin, making him recount everything he has ever said, for the all-powerful disposition given to words. This is skillful and non-supernatural horror – something that seems to have escaped from the horror genre over the years – which leaves you nibbling away at your fingers, let alone your nails, as the film inches closer every second to an ending you know is sure to send shivers down your spine.
One thing that I found most peculiar about the film is the effect of its soundtrack on everything that transpired on screen. If you observe closely, you begin to notice entire scenes that have been left untouched, with no particular melodies to accompany the actors but for icy silence. This has been executed thus with one intention in mind: to induce a sense of suffocation and to let its dark secrets sink into the audience minds with tenacity. This perpetual silence affords each frame a sinister quality that has you staring into empty bedrooms, kitchens and inanimate objects hoping to dear God that nothing jumps at you. What The Gift masters is the art of anticipation and tension-building which are well-tuned and befitting a jump scare to follow, which almost never comes. The dead silence is often complemented by the subtlest of movements in the background and it takes a surgical eye to take note of all the secrets hidden within.
The other time Jason Bateman was in a performance which included very little to no background track, it was Arrested Development and comparing his two roles would be nothing short of absurd. Bateman as we meet here in The Gift is not the first one that runs to our minds when we think of ‘great dad’ or ‘quirky frozen banana-stand owner’, but a far more ruthless man for whom all that matters is the rat race. Simon is far more grounded in reality, dealing with the problems of life the way most of us do – taking only the shortest and most effortless path that leaves the others in the dust. While observing him in most other films, he could be seen as a grown-up George Michael Bluth or Marty McFly; smart, short and above all kind-hearted. But all one sees here – somehow, through the strength of his physical transformation as well – is an adult Biff or Flash Thompson, someone who made the former’s life hell and would continue to do so if given the chance.
Edgerton’s Gordo on the other hand, does not present a contradiction as he isn’t normally associated with one type of character. That doesn’t stop him from delivering the slyest of performances, a portrait of a stalker with no parallel in recent years. The star of last year’s unimpressive Exodus: Gods and Kings turns tides here, taking on a disturbingly real character that is sure to make all of us think of someone in our past – it sure as hell did for me. I believe something that plagues most antagonists and psychopaths on film is a need to stand out and exaggerate: small quirks and slow menacing drawls, which end up distancing the film farther away from reality. People don’t appreciate the staggering disturbia that can be cast by an actor playing his character with normalcy in tone and voice, all the dread flowing out of his eyes. Joel Edgerton manages to take on the skin of a man that at first glance might seem like a nobody our eyes could skim over in a crowd, but on closer attention reveals a nature more capable of doing things we don’t want to hear about. In fact, the very introduction of Gordo in The Gift is in the form of a shadow in the background, someone who people clearly don’t stop to look at.
It seems a story we’ve all heard before, a simple plot; but the lengths it goes to, in creeping out the audience is sheer craftsmanship. Joel Edgerton proves with a strong debut that he is more fit for ventures where he can embody his vision, which proves really effective in execution. The cinematography also has tenacity in its images, a gruelling blankness that can give birth to the audience’s imagination. Jason Bateman too breaks out of his stereotype and embodies a man we all learn to loathe through every action he pursues. The Gift is smart, elegant and delicate in sinking its teeth into the shivering mind watching the film. It does what a classic thriller does best: work within a confined environment, with few players and mysterious gifts waiting to be opened at every turn. One thing you have to beware of is the pace of the film which is on the slow side. However, it is the perfect little thriller if you have a couple of hours to sit down and a couple after to fret over what you might have said in the past.